Decorative image

Risks and causes

See what might increase the risk of getting cancer of the larynx, including lifestyle factors and other medical conditions.

What a risk factor is

We don’t know what causes most laryngeal cancers. But some factors might increase your risk of developing it.

The risk factors for laryngeal cancer are explained below. Having any of these risk factors doesn't mean that you will definitely get cancer.

Age

As with most cancers, laryngeal cancer is more common in older people than younger people. There are very few cases in people under 40 years of age.

Drinking alcohol and smoking

Smoking tobacco and drinking a lot of alcohol are the main risk factors for laryngeal cancer in the western world. You’re at a higher than average risk of developing laryngeal cancer if you smoke and drink regularly. 

There is a combined risk if you smoke and drink a lot. It’s greater than the risk of just smoking or just drinking.

Heavy drinking and smoking is particularly linked to cancer above the vocal cords (the supraglottis) and the area around the vocal cords (the glottis).

Alcohol and cigarettes contain chemicals that increase the risk of cancer. The alcohol passes over the top of the larynx (the epiglottis) as you swallow. When you smoke, the smoke passes through the larynx on its way to your lungs. 

How much smoking and drinking alcohol affect your risk

Compared to non drinkers, heavy drinkers have about 3 times the risk of developing laryngeal cancer. Even drinking less than two drinks a day (for example two pints of beer or two small glasses of wine) gives a slightly increased risk of laryngeal cancer. But non smokers are unlikely to have an increased risk of laryngeal cancer at this level of drinking.

A review of 13 research studies has shown those who give up drinking alcohol can significantly reduce their risk over a period of 5 to 10 years. The risk slowly continues to decrease after a further 20 to 30 years. At this point, the risk of laryngeal cancer is the same as those who’ve never drunk alcohol.

Your risk of cancer increases the longer you smoke and the more cigarettes smoked per day. One study shows that people who smoke more than 25 cigarettes a day or for more than 40 years have about 40 times the risk of laryngeal cancer of a non smoker.

Reducing your risk

One research study has estimated that as many as eight in ten laryngeal cancers (80%) could be prevented if people adopted a healthier lifestyle.

HPV infection

HPV stands for human papilloma virus. There are different types of HPV. Type 16 is listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a probable cause of laryngeal cancer. More research is needed to look at this.

Research suggests that around 11 out of 100 (11%) laryngeal cancers in the UK are linked to HPV infection. But we don't know for sure how HPV links to the prevention and treatment of laryngeal cancer. More research is needed.

Diet

Poor eating patterns are common in people who are heavy drinkers. This may be one reason why alcohol increases the risk of cancer. A poor diet may increase your risk of laryngeal cancer. This may be due to a lack of vitamins and minerals.

A diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables seems to reduce the risk of laryngeal cancer. This may be because these foods contain high levels of the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E. Vitamins and other substances in fresh foods may help to stop damage to the lining of the larynx that can lead to cancer.

One research study found that a diet high in processed, fried and barbecued meat, gives an increased risk of laryngeal cancer. This diet is common in the western world. 

Another study showed an increased risk for people eating processed meat three times a week or more. But more studies are needed to check this.

Family history

People who have a first degree relative diagnosed with a head and neck cancer have double the risk of laryngeal cancer of someone without a family history. A first degree relative is a parent, brother, sister or child.

Low immunity

HIV and AIDs lower immunity. So do drugs that people take after organ transplants.

Research studies have shown that people with HIV or AIDS have a risk of laryngeal cancer that is 3 times higher than people who don’t have HIV or AIDS.

People who take drugs to suppress their immune system following an organ transplant have 2 times the risk of laryngeal cancer than the general population.

Exposure to substances

Some chemicals may increase your risk of laryngeal cancer. You may have an increased risk if you have been regularly exposed over some years to high levels of:

  • wood dust
  • soot or coal dust
  • paint fumes
  • coal as a fuel source

The chemicals in these substances can irritate the lining of your larynx. If these irritants are around you, you’re likely to breathe in and swallow small amounts.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) have produced a manual on improving outcomes in head and neck cancers. In this NICE links laryngeal cancer with exposure to these chemicals:

  • formaldehyde
  • nickle
  • isopropyl alcohol
  • sulphuric acid mist
  • diesel fumes

There is evidence that exposure to asbestos fibres may increase the risk of developing laryngeal cancer later on in life.

Other research has looked into exposure to cement dust in builders and construction workers. But this hasn’t shown a clear link to laryngeal cancer.

Acid reflux

Reflux happens when stomach acid comes back up the food pipe (oesophagus) and irritates the lining. In the long term, this can cause damage to the cells in the oesophagus. This irritation and damage can extend to the larynx and may increase cancer risk.

Some research has looked into past stomach surgery and laryngeal cancer risk. The theory is that bile reflux is more common after stomach surgery and this may increase irritation of the larynx but it is not certain that this causes laryngeal cancer.

Larynx cancer in children

There are extremely rare reports of larynx cancer in children who have no known risk factors. This may be due to a faulty gene that the child has inherited. So far, no gene fault has been identified for cancer of the larynx.

Other possible causes

Stories about potential causes are often in the media. It isn’t always clear which of the ideas reported are supported by good evidence. You might have heard about a possible cause which we haven’t included here. This is because there is either no evidence to support it, or that what the evidence shows is not fully clear.

Detailed information about laryngeal cancer risks and causes

Last reviewed: 
26 May 2015
  • Contribution of tobacco and alcohol to the high rates of squamous cell carcinoma of the supraglottis and glottis in Central Europe
    M. Hashibe and others
    American Journal of Epidemiology, 2007, Volume165, Issue 7, Page 814-20

  • International Agency for Research on Cancer. List of Classifications by cancer sites with sufficient or limited evidence in humans, Volumes 1 to 105 
    Accessed October 2014

  • Cancers attributable to infection in the UK in 2010
    D Parkin
    British Journal of Cancer, 2011, Volume 105, Supplement 2, Pages 49-56

  • Alcohol drinking in never users of tobacco, cigarette smoking in never drinkers, and the risk of head and neck cancer: pooled analysis in the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology Consortium
    M Hashibe and others
    Journal of National Cancer Institute, 2007, Volume 99, Issue 10, Pages 777-89

  • Family history of cancer: pooled analysis in the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology Consortium
    E Negri
    International Journal of Cancer, 2009, Volume 124, Issue 2, Pages 394-401

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular risk or cause you are interested in.

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.